What is the best PC strategy game? Some would say StarCraft II, others Civilization VI. Join us as we list the genre’s greatest hits, featuring the biggest Steam games available.
Fun fact: the strategy game genre was first invented back in 1938, when Winston Churchill looked out an aeroplane window over France and thought, “Hey, this would make a really cool videogame, whatever that is.” Probably.
Since then, there have been about a hundred million different strategy games, simulating as many different kinds of fighting as we humans have had reasons to fight one another. From the all-encompassing broad strokes of the Civilization series to the individually rendered blades of the Total War games, and not to forget the far-flung fantasy tech of StarCraft – strategy games are as diverse as they come.
But which are the absolute top strategy games on PC? Well, just drag a selection box over our bodies and right-click on the horizon, and we’ll all be on our way to finding out.
The best strategy games are:
Offworld Trading Company
Offworld Trading Company is right at the other end of the strategy games spectrum from Civilization, though its designer, Soren Johnson, also worked on Civ IV. While Civ spans the history and some of the future of humanity, chronicling the progress of mankind, Offworld Trading Company is all about making a fortune by exploiting our red neighbour, Mars.
It’s an RTS without micromanagement, and in which victory is not achieved by throwing tanks at enemies, or demolishing their bases. Instead, your weapons are resources and cash, which you use to manipulate the marketplace not just to simply get rich, but to completely screw over your competitors. That’s if you haven’t made a temporary alliance with one of your rivals, of course – though you might end up closing deals with one hand while holding a dagger in the other.
You might not expect an economic strategy game to be very aggressive, but Offworld Trading Company encourages you to be just as hostile as a warmonger. When you’re eyeing up menus, planning what to build next, what to sell, which company to launch a hostile takeover against next, it’s easily as thrilling as when you’re sending infantry across artillery-pummelled fields or launching sneak air attacks against an enemy stronghold in Company of Heroes or StarCraft II. Since launch, Offworld Trading Company’s DLC has really given the game a boost, too.
And remember Baba Yetu? Probably the greatest piece of music in strategy games? Well, it’s by composer Christopher Tin, and he created the soundtrack for Offworld Trading Company. And, yes, it’s really good.
Total War: Warhammer II
With Total War: Warhammer, the iconic strategy series dipped an experimental toe into fantasy. The joyous fun of dragons and magic (not to mention a popular licence) made for mass appeal and record sales, but developer Creative Assembly did not forget how to make a good strategy game. The character of Warhammer’s factions was channelled into engaging campaign mechanics that varied for the first time, encouraging replayability, and unit rosters that enabled a better Lord of the Rings battle simulator than any other game out there.
All of that’s even more true in the sequel, as our TW: Warhammer 2 PC review points out. This time, CA goes even bigger, making it one of the best strategy games in recent years. Again, though, this ambition is tempered with craft: the new Vortex victory condition may seem like fantastical indulgence, but it serves the game by keeping the pressure up right to the end, when you would previously be cruising to an easy win. The factions are richer and more vibrant than ever, yet mastering more vanilla classes – using our TW: Warhammer 2 High Elves guide – adds common sense to all the bombast. So don’t be fooled by the dragons and dinos – this is the best Total War has been by the old, analytical metrics, as well as the flashy new fun ones.
If Civ V was the most streamlined the series had ever been, Civilization VI is the most celebratory – a 25th anniversary iteration that sheds the sterility of previous entries in favour of a stirring soundtrack and a brave new (cartoonish) look. It finds Firaxis remembering that the power of a 4X game lies as much in its atmosphere as its systems.
It’s testament to the attentiveness of Sid Meier and his studio, however, that those systems have not been neglected either. Civilization VI has exhumed several of the best additions from its predecessor’s Community Balance Patch, while pushing onwards and upwards with some new offbeat ideas – builders that expire after three turns, for instance, and cities that spread across several tiles.
Is that not what Civ is all about? Pushing onwards and upwards, reaching for the stars? Firaxis will surely continue to do just that, building on these strong foundations with balance patches and DLC like the Civilization 6: Rise and Fall expansion. And players will do the same as they conceive game-changing Civilization 6 mods. But even the game that exists now is a classic Civ. Not just a wonderfully colourful introductory experience, but also an intriguing twist on some of the series’ most deeply rooted mechanics that will keep veterans coming back for one more turn.
Paradox’s 4X grand strategy hybrid makes space surprising again with event chains that are, at first, evocative of Crusader Kings II, but end up going much further. In Stellaris, expect mutant uprisings, robotic rebellions, and the discovery of alien texts that make your citizens question their place in the galaxy.
It’s not just a 4X game; it’s a galactic roleplaying game and empire sim, bestowing a vast array of options upon you, allowing you to create unique, eccentric space-faring species. You can play as a fundamentalist society built on the backs of slaves, or hyper-intelligent lizards that rely on robots whether they are fighting or farming. The robust species creator and multitude of meaningful decisions mean you can create almost any alien you can imagine. No wonder we praised it highly in our Stellaris PC review.
And underpinning all of that is the game’s focus on exploration. While most space 4X games stick with one method of interstellar travel, Stellaris gives you three to choose from, each with their own strengths and counters. In one game, the galaxy might be a network of hyperlanes, but in the next you might find yourself building wormhole stations and blinking across the galaxy.
Stellaris multiplayer is not to be overlooked either, transforming decent human beings into Machiavellian alien tyrants at the drop of a hat. It’s easily one of the best strategy games of recent years.
XCOM 2 is one of the all-time greats of the tactics genre. Spoiler: we gave it a really good score in our XCOM 2 PC review. It takes the best bits from the series so far – the savage struggle, the ragtag group of heroes, the devious aliens, the tight tactical battles – and throws improvement after improvement on top.
Once again, XCOM 2 has you sending up to six soldiers into the breach, but this time as a group of struggling survivors fighting against a tyrannical alien regime. It’s all guerrilla tactics, covert missions, and dissidence. You need to learn to make sacrifices, leaving men and women behind so you can save the rest, and you need to learn to swallow loss and failure.
The battles are challenging and varied, full of horrific adversaries with tricky, surprising abilities. But the biggest changes are found at the strategic layer – why else would it be on a list of the best strategy games on PC? You will travel all over the world, setting up cells, infiltrating black sites, hunting for more resources so you can field more powerful weapons and tools – it’s compelling, rather than an afterthought.
And XCOM 2 mods are great. You can download a corgi gun. A corgi gun.
Company of Heroes 2: Ardennes Assault
Company of Heroes 2 was great but it didn’t quite match the magic of its predecessor. Then Ardennes Assault came along; one of the best RTS games and therefore able to consolidate the series’ place at the forefront of the genre.
The US forces and German Oberkommando are fighting over control of the Ardennes in a campaign inspired by The Battle of the Bulge. That sets it apart from both Company of Heroes and the sequel alongside its non-linear campaign that plays out across a strategic meta map. The Germans are dynamic, being reinforced by retreating forces, changing the challenges posed by both story missions and the dynamic skirmishes.
While the campaign is only played from the American point of view, the US forces are split into three companies, all with unique specialities covering air, support, and mechanised roles. These companies all have special officer abilities and upgrade trees, and any can be used to tackle a mission. Even if you focus on one, the other two will still be on the map, and can provide assistance by blocking the enemy retreat out of a captured province.
This is the first time the battles in Company of Heroes have had real weight. Previously, winning was all that mattered. Finish the mission and you move on to the next one, starting fresh. Ardennes Assault is a persistent campaign, though, and losses in battle can bring down a company’s veterancy and manpower. There is even a risk of it being wiped out entirely, leaving the other two companies to face the Germans alone.
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak
Blackbird Interactive has done the seemingly impossible with Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak. And that’s to transpose the elegant, minimalist space wars of the original Homeworld games to a single planet, making for one of the best RTS games in the process. Somehow it works. Really well.
It’s a journey across a vast desert directed by your mission to save a civilisation. Each battle is connected to the last as well as the ones yet to be played. Every unit that survives will live to fight another day in another mission in a persistent war for survival.
Kharak itself, despite being a giant desert, is a fantastic planet-sized battlefield. The addition of terrain and elevation replicates the three-dimensional battles of the previous games, with the sand dunes providing cover, hiding spots, and high ground from where you can unleash devastating attacks.
Like its predecessors, the game is blessed with some of the best art design you could hope to find in an RTS, meaning you can take beautiful Homeworld screenshots. Add with its incredible sound design, and a genuinely interesting narrative, Deserts of Kharak is a classic.
Whenever Endless Legend comes up in conversation, it’s hard not to gush about it, which is what we’re about to do here. It easily earned itself a place as one of the best games of 2014.
In our Endless Legend PC review, we lavished praise on a game that blends fantasy and science fiction seamlessly, throwing stranded spacemen against magical dragon people in absolutely the most striking hex-based world there is. Diverse, gorgeous, it looks almost tangible, like you could reach out and pick up one of the elaborate cities and cradle it in your hands. “Don’t worry, citizens. We won’t let the horrible man-eating insects devour you and your families,” we whisper into our cupped palms.
What makes it notable are the fascinating factions that vie for dominance over the apocalyptic world. Each faction is blessed with unique and interesting mechanics that set them apart and inform how they’re played. You have got the horrible aforementioned flesh-eating insect race, the Necrophage, for instance, who are so foul they cannot make alliances with other factions, forcing them to always be the opposition. And there’s the bizarre Cultists, a faction of peculiar zealots that can only construct one city, and must rely on swallowing up other factions if they want to expand.
Surprisingly, the game is also blessed with a strong narrative that lends it a strong sense of place. Every faction has a unique set of story quests that will inform many of your decisions without backing you into a corner, and there’s an abundance of side-quests and stories that make it feel like you’re managing a world where a genuine roleplaying adventure is taking place.
Crusader Kings II
Talk about a murderous bastard of a grand-strategy game. In Crusader Kings II, you play a medieval ruler trying to gain more power, influence, and territory in a historically authentic medieval Europe. It’s a game of intrigue, war, politics, and religion, played out on a stunning, detailed map of the known world and in countless, complex menus. Really, though, Crusader Kings II is a strategy game about people: your dynasty, your vassals, your lovers, enemies, and family members.
It’s this personal element that makes Crusader Kings II so compelling. You’re in charge of a family, not an abstract nation. You’ll marry and have kids, you’ll die, and then your heir will take over and the whole thing begins again. In between all this, you can use intrigue or brute force to increase your holdings, but the key is to develop a real personal connection with your characters, your avatar. You’ll mourn their death and cheer their every triumph. And this drama has only been expanded with the likes of the Crusader Kings II: Jade Dragon DLC.
Usurp thrones, create politically advantageous marriages, murder your wife, and if it all gets too much there’s always the occasional jousting tournament or day of hunting to keep you in good spirits. As long as they don’t kill you.
What’s not to love about a game that pits armoured cowboys against xenomorphic aliens and space elves? StarCraft II is a classic base-building RTS that tasks you with gathering resources, building armies, and killing your enemy before they kill you with quick decisions and even quicker mouse clicks.
Online is a huge part of StarCraft II, and this RTS is actually one of the best multiplayer games on PC. Your enemies are human; they’ll probably be able to click faster than you, issuing orders quicker than you. You’ll probably lose a lot, but you’ll get better the more you play, making this one of the best RTS games for anyone with a competitive streak. Or, if you would rather watch the action, there’s a small but dedicated competitive playerbase at the esports level.
The PvE campaign is also interesting – Blizzard has combined frantic action with an RPG-like backdrop as you follow the exploits of Terran mercenary Jim Raynor. You’ll fight through a series of missions, many of which will have unique objectives – like trying to harvest resources on a map that periodically fills up with lava, or defending against waves upon waves of Zerg for a set period of time. In between missions you’ll explore an RPG-like hub, where you can talk to people, research new techs, and decide upon your next destination. Story is hard to do in RTS games, and many developers resign to cutscenes or in-mission dialogue, but StarCraft II actually makes you interact with the world outside combat, and so is a more interactive story.
2015 saw the game conclude with the launch of Legacy of the Void, one of the best RTS games of the past few years, so if you want the whole experience you’ll want to get all three entries in the series.
Back in the day, Supreme Commander was the game that broke PCs, such were the demands it placed on processors. This future war robo-RTS simplifies resource management and focuses more on creating the perfect war machine. You start off with a single irreplaceable command unit, and from there you build factories that will churn out units to wage war on your enemies.
Nothing genre-breaking, but it’s the sheer scale that puts Supreme Commander up there with the best RTS games – years later, Supreme Commander doesn’t so much break PCs anymore as it breaks minds. A player’s army can potentially reach up to 1,000 units separated out into land, sea, and air. You have to orchestrate a careful ballet of production, movement, and attack, grinding down your opponent while keeping your command unit safe, as well as your factories powered and supplied so that they can create more machines of death. It’s brilliant and mind-boggling all at once.
This was one of the few games at the time to officially support dual monitors, which means you can have a zoomable map up on the second screen. It’s a godsend, as it allows you to keep an eye on the big picture a lot easier. Few games are blessed with the same scale as Supreme Commander, and when you take the war online that’s where the real challenge begins.
Titles like StarCraft demand quick thinking and quicker reactions, but they only deal with a couple dozen units at most. Supreme Commander demands all of that too but deals in the thousands. Compared to many upcoming PC games, this RTS may look a little creaky around the edges, but it still offers a supreme slice of strategy.
So there are the best strategy games on PC. While you’re here, check out the best PC MMOs for similar life-swallowing experiences. And if you’re after the very cream of the crop, check out the best PC games of all-time. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’re off to defend our bases/save humanity from alien annihilation/wage global war. Phew, this strategy stuff sure is stressful.